A loss to Oregon State was certainly a bad look, but after a 2012 regular season league title there certainly wasn't much to worry about for the Washington Huskies and their NCAA tournament hopes. Then Selection Sunday came, and the Huskies were left out of the field, the first major conference league winner to not receive an at-large bid. It was at that point the PAC-12 hit absolute rock bottom.
Two teams were represented in that tournament with Cal getting the lone at-large as a last four in entrant. The Golden Bears and Colorado Buffaloes did their best to represent but the story of the season had been written. PAC-12 basketball was irrelevant and neither team hung around long enough to change that narrative. What was once among the best conferences in college basketball in the 90s and early-mid 00s was off the radar.
Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season and the league was still second tier in the eyes of many. Arizona entered the season with plenty of hype and was expected to carry the flag for the PAC-12 in its revival hopes. Still outside of optimism for a second "top" team to emerge from UCLA, Oregon and Colorado, the PAC-12 was still widely regulated to the discussion with the SEC, AAC and Big East and ignored in relation to the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC. Frankly the onus was on the teams of the league to bring the level of respect back to the PAC-12 and show it once again should be among the top leagues in the country.
Spencer Dinwiddie's season injury wiped out what had the potential to be a very good Buffs team and the balance in the middle of the league seemed to work against the PAC-12 and its claim to upper-echelon status. While the league presented challenges nearly every weekend in some form (minus those Washington schools), everyone who wasn't named Arizona or UCLA was thrown into the bubble conversation the last month of the season. The resumes' of Stanford, Colorado and even Arizona State suggested they shouldn't have much to worry about yet as we saw a year ago, the committee might not look so kindly on the league.
Two weeks into the NCAA tournament the PAC-12 has followed up what I and many others close to the conference felt the league was capable of with a strong tournament showing. Four teams won games and Oregon's collapse vs Wisconsin kept the PAC-12 from four Sweet Sixteen teams. In fact it really wasn't until Stanford's upset of Kansas that people's eyes began to open and see the brand of ball being played on the west coast. The PAC-12 simply challenged its teams throughout league play with very few cupcakes and you're seeing it pay dividends for teams now who are not overwhelmed by the names on other jerseys.
This weekend serves yet another chance for the PAC-12 to make a statement. Few expected teams outside of Tucson or LA to show up this tournament and some even felt those teams were going home the first weekend. Yet you look around the landscape of the Sweet Sixteen and no league can claim more bids and no team may be able to claim the caliber of wins to get here that Stanford can. Ultimately the PAC-12 is still has a bit of a way to go to get back to its glory days of multiple national title contenders every year but the progression back to that point has come quicker than many expected.
With three opportunities to punch a Final Four ticket by the end of the weekend and the massive stage that comes with that, the PAC-12 can't ask for a better opportunity than what lies in front of it. While we'd all gladly sacrifice the Bruins or Cardinal for an Arizona sweep this weekend, why be forced to choose? Make the most of what lies in front of you Arizona, UCLA and Stanford.